Monday, January 28, 2013

Interview with Ben Carr of Last Year's Men

I first saw Last Year's Men at their record release show at the Duke Coffeehouse at the beginning of my junior year. They were playing with Spider Bags and I was just getting into Rock n Roll music. Last Year's Men blew my mind. They played with an intensity that was rare for a group of what were basically kids at the time, barely out of high school. Ben Carr, the lead singer, shrieked and wailed while playing his guitar as hard as anyone else I had seen. I immediately picked up their (at the time) new LP on Churchkey Records.

About a year later I saw them again with even more fervor and intensity. At the end of the show, Ben launched himself at the drummer, as the other two members grappled each other and bore themselves to the ground. These guys did not mess around. I remember going "Oh my god this is awesome!" to my friend Kyle, with whom I was. I knew that this band was something special.

I heard rumors of them working with Greg Cartwright of The Oblivians, The Reigning Sound, The Parting Gifts and other stuff - they had a split 7" single for the Scion/AV and Vice thing that I was never able to get my hands on. When I interviewed Mr. Cartwright, he confirmed this for me.

After moving to Chicago, I have tried to keep in contact with the bands that I liked and appreciated in the triangle area. Last Year's Men just put out an unreal 7" single on Sophomore Lounge that has a bit more punk and grunge influence than they're fantastic LP on Churchkey Records, which is a great straight up rock n roll record. You can learn more about them on FACEBOOK

Ben assures me that their new record is close to being done and I can't wait. He's also looking for labels to put it out. SO CHECK IT OUT AND PUT IT OUT, LABELS.

This is what Ben said to me.

Jordan: Tell me a little bit about your band? Has the lineup changed at all since you guys started? When did you start?

The Cover of the new 7"
Ben: We started off as a two-piece - it was Ian and myself. Ian is the drummer. After that, we did a short tour. We were both fairly young, only about 17. Around then, our good buddy Jeff moved back into town after living up in Boston so we asked him to join the band. We had played together in previous projects. Steve Jones who co-runs Churchkey records played bass with us for a little bit and so did Greg Levy who had played in Spider Bags. Then we got a permanent bass player named Montgomery and he has played with us for about two years and as of a couple weeks ago he let us know that he wouldn’t be touring with us - he said he was starting to get old.

Yeah, we’ve been playing for about two and a half years now and creeping up on three.

J: When did you guys first starting writing music? When you started the band did you come with ideas for songs or did it happen organically?

B: I had two or three songs written and this was right after my old pop-punk band broke up. Ian’s old band had also broken up so I called and asked if he wanted to play drums in my new project and we didn’t even have a name yet. I brought a couple songs to the table and we practiced them a bit and then we recorded three or four demos and passed them around. Churchkey got word of us and decided to go see us live and then they threw out our first record after about four or five months.

J: What’s the discography like? Sunny Down Snuff was the first official release, correct?

B: Sunny Down Snuff was our first record. I’ve personally been on a couple other records, but as Last Year’s Men that was our first proper LP. We did a demo on a CD-R before that, which we passed to friends or sold on the road when we would go out of town. Then we did a split 7” with the Reigning Sound and that came out last August. Then we got the new 7” out, which will be out in the next few weeks. We just got back from recording our full-length in Asheville. We’re finishing up the overdubs and mixing it. That should come out in the next few months, but don’t hold me to that (laughs).

J: So the brand new 7” is Clawless Paw?

B: Yeah

J: I actually already got that in the mail

B: Yeah, they did a preorder and everyone who preordered is getting their copy now. A bunch of my friends have a copy but I actually haven’t even seen it yet. They’re in the mail to me and the band currently. We’ll be bringing them out to the local stores in the next couple of weeks. I think the official release is February 19, maybe?
J: So when did you guys first go on tour? What did you guys do?

B: So Ian had just turned 17 and I was about to turn 18. I don’t remember who’s van we took. Some friend’s van they lent us for some reason. I don’t know why they would let two seventeen-year-old kids take their van out for a week. Our good buddy Matt came along with us and we did the South for a bit. Maybe seven days and four shows - a bunch of shit fell through. There was a lot of bullshit on that tour. We pretty much played to a bartender at all times. We didn’t know what we were doing and I had booked the tour, just a 17-year-old kid on the internet so I hadn’t made any friends regionally or anything. It was pretty bad but they got progressively better. They’re still not that great (laughs) but there’s a couple towns where we know some people who can get others to go out and watch us.

J: What towns?

B: I really like Atlanta. We had a really good time in Charlotte and in Oxford, Mississippi. I like going over to Memphis not necessarily to play because Memphis is a weird town in terms of getting people out, but just hanging in Memphis is one of the best things to do. We always have a really good time there.

J: So what’s the new record like? Aren’t you guys recording with Greg Cartwright?

B: Yeah, we’re recording with him. We have all the basic tracks done and most of the vocals. A lot of the guitar overdubs too. It’s a pop record. Clawless Paw is kind of a grungy-type-thing. Kind of like a psych-song. This next record is similar to Sunny Down Snuff in regards to the pop aspect but it’s more mature. There’s an acoustic song on it. It’s absolutely going to be a rock n’ roll record and not like an indie rock record at all. There is a little more pop orientation to it though.

J: Clawless Paw has a lot more punk and grunge stuff in it. Where did that come from? What was the writing process like? It seems slower and sludgier but harder too.

B: I think we all listen to a ton of different records. We don’t just sit around and listen to doo-wop records or punk records or rock n’ roll records. If you were to look at all our record collections, you’d find Hank Williams sitting next to Ty Segall. At the time, I was listening to a lot of Thee Oh Sees and a lot of that stuff. Probably a lot of grunge music too. I always find it silly when people try to pigeonhole an artist, like when someone will say that if you make a pop record then you can’t make a screaming punk song. I think it’s fun to be able to push a band in different directions and roll with what gets written.

J: I think you’re totally right. I think the best artists can do a lot of different styles of music too.

B: Yeah, there’s some modern examples. Ty Segall is a good example. He made Slaughterhouse and he also made Goodbye Bread, which are two very different records  but distinctly Ty Segall. Greg Cartwright does a good job with that too. Just look at his work with Oblivians and then compare that to the first Reigning Sound record, which is almost country. I think it’s important to not make the same thing two times.

J: What’s the ratio of songs you have written as opposed to songs that you have written, recorded and are thinking of putting out?

B: I’m always writing, but I think that I throw out more songs than I use. I’m picky. It always seems like on each record there’s a song that I’ll come up with a day or two before the recording. I’ll just say “this song has got to go on the record - it makes sense.” It happened on Sunny Down Snuff and happened on the new record.

I’m actually starting a new project as an outlet for some of the more punk oriented music I’ve been writing. Elijah from Paint Fumes and I are going to be forming a musical outlet at some point too.

J: Oh, I just interviewed Elijah for Paint Fumes.

B: Yeah, they’re all good buddies. We were down in Charlotte about three weeks ago and Elijah and I were hanging out and talking and were like “Why don’t we just make a fucking band together?” So we got pretty drunk and started coming up with band names. But I want to get North Carolina more on the map. There aren’t that many Rock n Roll bands here. It’s kind of a shame.

J: What were some of the good band names?

B: Butthole Issue, Cheap Skeet, Anal Fissure, Maxipads or something like that. We were spitting them out all night.

J: That’s rich.

B: (laughs) we’ll see which one fits the most. I was definitely digging Anal Fissure, but I like Cheap Skeet a lot. We’ll see.

J: What do you mean when you say you want to put North Carolina more on the map in regards to Rock N Roll? How would you go about doing that and what would you say needs to be done?

B: I don’t know. We were talking about this. Montgomery who plays on the new record said that people need to make zines, go out and call people from around the country and get them to play here. Give people a good show and a place to stay. Then start forming more bands and hope that each member of each Rock n Roll band starts a project with different people. Hopefully then that would grow and spiderweb off into something. I think I would also like to bridge the gap between Charlotte and the Triangle area. Charlotte has a lot of cool stuff, mostly in the lo-fi punk stuff like with Nick Goode. I think just making a ton of records and sparking interest with people who aren’t into garage rock. Hopefully that’ll spin into something.

J: What would be some of the bands you’d like to see in the Triangle?

B: A lot of them come through, but it’s just that it’s hard to get a good show. If a band comes through Chapel Hill then there’s like four or five bands that would fit. So if you have all these guys coming through and the same four or five bands play, then the incentive for people to come goes down. People will think “oh, well, I can see Last Year’s Men whenever. This is an $8 ticket and they’ll play some time around.” It’s hard. It’s difficult. I’d love to see a bunch of In The Red bands and a lot of Goner bands from Memphis come over and hang out and play some shows but we’ll see what happens.

J: What are some bands you like to play with in the Triangle Area and in Charlotte?

B: Flesh Wounds is a great band. We played with Joint Damage, which was a lot of fun. Gross Ghost is really great. Spider Bags, obviously - they’re one of my favorite bands. Paint Fumes aren’t really local anymore but they’re fun to play with.

J: What bands have been most influential to the sounds and music that you have made as Last Year’s Men singer-songwriter?

B: I basically formed the band after listening to the Reigning Sound. They really got me into garage rock. I don’t know. It’s hard to say because there are just so many records. And not just me, but all four of us are trying to find new sounds to listen to. I like older stuff and newer stuff. Going out to record stores and picking ten records and listening to them at the booth is really fun. It can go back to classics like Velvet Underground and then go to newer stuff like that first Cheap Time record. It’s hard to just pick a few influences. It’s years of trying to explore that is the best influence.

J: What jobs do you guys hold onto and how do you reconcile that with touring?

B: Jeff works at a coffee shop. Ian also works at a coffee shop. Montgomery, who is no longer touring with us works at a record store, a jewelry store, and a nightclub. I work at a fine dining restaurant and also at the Local 506 doing door stuff over there. People are generally pretty cool with it but you have to give them notice and everything when you get hired. “I do this thing. I play in this band. And I’m going to have to hit the road. And the reason that I want this job is to play in this band.” I wouldn’t assume that many people aspire to work at a coffee shop. It’s a work to live situation and not a live to work thing. They’ve always been pretty cool about letting me take off time when I need.

J: So how are you guys going to put out the record? Who’s putting it out?

B: We don’t know yet. Hopefully somebody will want to put it out. We’re gonna finish it up and pass it around to some people. If anybody’s reading this, put out our record please. Crossing our fingers.

J: What’s Greg Cartwright’s role in regards to the new record?

B: Well, we recorded it in his house. His whole family was there. We were just in this room - four scruffy rock n roll dudes playing in his house. He pretty much defined the sound of it. We had our amps and he took a look at them and he basically said “well, I also have a room full of amplifiers if you want to check them out.” It was like being a kid in a candy shop. Jeff and I had our guitars and plugged them into all these amps. He told us which drum kit to use. The way we recorded the vocals too. We didn’t even use a condenser microphone - we used a little instrument microphone that worked really well. He’s going to do most of the mixing with us. He helped with harmony parts, handclaps, and backing vocals. Really helped a lot.

J: That’s got to be a great feeling having someone that you respect a lot being hip to the record.

B: Yeah. It was really neat. It was cool. By the end of it, having him playing a guitar solo on a song I wrote. He changed the words with me to one of the choruses. Just sitting down and making it flow better. By the end, we’re both playing it on our guitars.

J: Have you guys collaborated with other artists?

B: Dan McGee from Spider Bags and I did some stuff together. He had a lot more free time a little bit ago and we would hang out and bring songs we had written and working on them and recording. I’d like to do more of that. It was fun.

J: Did you and Dan ever put out those songs?

B: No we didn’t. I think there’s only one that we did that he did some guitar work on. It’s recorded somewhere. I keep bugging him, but still no word. If I ever get my hands on it then I’ll release it in some way.

J: They’re one of my favorite bands too. I used to live in Durham. I remember I saw Spider Bags three times in one week and it was like the greatest week in my life.

B: They’re the best band. They’re awesome. That new record is really phenomenal. We got to do some backing vocals and some handclaps. That new record is seriously one of my favorite records of all time. It’s ridiculous.

J: What’s the deal with the art on the new 7”?

B: That’s our buddy Daron. He was our buddy from Chapel Hill and he recently moved away. He’s a comic artist and he just got a grant so he’s doing full-time art, which is great. He’s got the coolest style. Just go to his flickr. It’s pretty amazing.

J: Did you have any input in it?

B: We originally saw the front cover and just thought it was awesome and we said “we have to make this the record cover” and he was cool with it and then we tried to figure out what to do with the back and he sent this over to Ryan Davis who runs Sophomore Lounge. And Ryan put together the layout and sent it over and I thought it looked great so we rolled with it. I love anything Daron does.

J: How was it working with Sophomore Lounge? You guys have been on all kinds of labels.

B: Sophomore Lounge is great. Ryan has been a friend of ours for a while. I met him through Dan from Spider Bags. We always talked about doing something together and finally it kind of worked out. It took a while for us to work out and get it recorded. He’s really great. I’d love to do another record with him. Sophomore Lounge has been family for a while so it was great to work with them.

J: What do you guys have planned for the future? Are you guys just gonna make more records.

B: I don’t know. We’ll see after this full-length comes out. I feel like we’ve put in the work for a while in terms of recording so keep writing and playing and see if anyone likes the record.

J: Are you guys going to tour behind it?

B: Yeah, we’ll tour behind it. Our van just broke down unfortunately. Hopefully we’ll make it out to the West Coast at some point. That’s the goal and then hopefully Europe if we can get some help from there. We’ll be hitting the road hard after the record. Probably a couple months of touring.

J: Do you guys have plans to do SXSW?

B: Not this year. We did it last year and it was kind of a drag. We were working with an agency and we got kind of lost in the wash with them. We didn’t get a good showcase or  any day parties. It was a bust. We got to hang out and see some friends but other than that it was like constantly asking why we were even there. It seems like a big corporate scheme I feel like. There’s banners and companies everywhere like Doritos and stuff. What does it have to do with music? It’s kind of a bummer.

It’s why festivals like Hopscotch are awesome. Bands run around and play a bunch of shows everyone is there to see music. There aren’t these corporate fatcats running around. People are there to experience being at a music festival. Why would you pay $300 to go to a festival and sit around to play XBOX at the XBOX dome? It’s so lame to me.

J: How important is being local and staying true to your artist integrity?

B: It’s important. I think we need people around here that will let people stay over. People need to have places to stay. Also being local and playing locally is important. Being friends with people is the most important. There was this band that I let stay over at my house last night after just working the door - they weren’t anything like our music, but I let them. I didn’t like them or anything. We let them over and just kind of figured we could show them a good time, but they were like awful. Terrible people not trying to hang out. Except one of them - one of them was cool. The other two were just sitting there and talking about agencies and money and yadda yadda yadda. All I could think was “what the hell are you doing? hang out and listen to our records with us.”

J: I definitely think that stuff is important to music. I think a lot of the worth in music comes from making something original or not even original but internally integral to the person. Not just influenced by some sort of greed or money at the expense of the art.

B: Yeah, you know - it hits me as like what’s the point? Like, it’s funny that people don’t understand that you can’t make a living off Rock n Roll. (Laughs). It’s not gonna happen. It happens to a couple people, but for most of us it’s far off so my approach is to have fun, play music, and make records.

J: What would you say to people starting bands?

B: Start touring and make a record. That’s the only way to do it. Even some people will make a great record and won’t tour. Bands need to play with cool people. That sounds lame. But people need to play with good bands that come through the area, and not be shy. Hit the road as hard as possible.

J: Anything else you’d like to say?

B: I think that about answers everything, man.

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